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Papal Shock: The Goan View

At a time when churches in Europe and America are increasingly going empty, advice we have in Goa a thriving Catholic Christian culture where the centuries-old churches are now too small to hold the teeming faithful. The number of Masses on Christmas, Easter and feast days has to be increased and large pandals have to be erected to accommodate mass-goers. Unlike the West where diminished faith is the order of the day, Goa has an extraordinarily vibrant Church of passionate devotees. It is this devout congregation that stopped stunned in its tracks at the latest news from the Vatican.

It’s not by accident that Catholics use the word “father” to refer to their religious leaders. So when Pope Benedict XVI dropped the bombshell of his impending resignation – the first pope to abdicate in six centuries – many Goans felt as if their father had decided to step down. But wait a minute. Can a father do that? Isn’t your father your father until his death, no matter what?

Maybe your father can’t resign, but it turns out a pope can. The shock and disbelief among Goans at the initial announcement has turned into a sort of resigned acknowledgement. Some even hold out hope that the resignation of this father will make room for another, younger father who will take better care of them.

Mixed reactions began emerging from Goans as soon as the Pope’s decision began to sink in, and the debate has even moved towards what is expected from a spiritual head in an ever changing and increasingly challenging and divided world.

“I’m shocked, I didn’t even know a pope could resign,” says Ethel da Costa, Goa head of Radio Mirchi.

Nitin Machado, a Catholic priest, says this: “I am touched by his move. The act (resignation) itself is humble and shows character. When someone is not able to accomplish a mission in a fruitful manner it is time he gives it up so someone else can take it up. Thus it was a wise move.”

In Goa, the topic is more than academic. The state has a higher percentage of Roman Catholics than any other in India – 26 percent. And two cardinals of Goan origin – Oswald Gracias and Ivan Dias – will be among those choosing the new pope. In the last papal enclave of 2005 that chose Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Dias was among the major contenders.

The faithful in Goa are waiting anxiously for what will happen next.

“The whole world is facing crisis after crisis. The crisis of faith is just one of them … The new pope will have to take the Church forward,” said Father Rosario Rocha, who heads the Jesuit province in Goa. The pontiff who succeeds Benedict XVI will have to fulfill the vision and mission of Vatican II, the council that liberalized Church doctrine in the 1960s, he said.

More than any other state in India, it is tiny Goa that has witnessed the saga of the Christian Church over the centuries, ever since the early St. Thomas Christians travelled into Goa even before Afonso de Albuquerque captured the City of Goa in 1510. St Francis Xavier, a Jesuit priest, entered Goa in 1542 and is now popularly adored as Goencho Saib. Reverence for saints like St Xavier and St. Anthony runs high among Goans. The Pap-Saib is also respected and loved as the leader of the Catholic Church. Thousands of faithful thronged the visit of Pope John Paul II to Goa in 1986.

The Archbishop of Goa was unavailable for comment on the pope’s resignation, but his secretary, Father Joaquim Loiola Pereira, said the Church was now in the hands of the “Holy Spirit” and open to a future “as communicated from above”.

“The church wants nothing. We as a church are open. What the future holds will come from above, which we shall accept in a spirit of faith,” Fr Pereira said, adding this should be a time of increased prayer.

The Goan laity, meanwhile, reacted with a kaleidoscope of ideas which ranged from the need for a younger pope to a demand for a new pope who is more tolerant of homosexuality, a rather tall order considering the Vatican’s position on this issue.

“The Pope is the Catholic Church’s leader. It is more important that he is functional rather than populist. The papers he presents and policies he proposes should serve the laity and clergy to have a better God experience and deeper faith in Christ,” said popular Radio Jockey Alfwold Silveira.

A young Vinit Ranjan, who belongs to the Syrian Christian community settled in Goa, believes that the next pope’s task is cut out: “To keep the youth united and away from the bonds of alcohol and drug abuse.”

Calls for the Church to adopt more liberal policies on issues such as gays, marriage of priests, women priests, contraception and abortion have taken a back seat in Goa, where only a few of the faithful are clamoring for such change.

‘Don’t speak badly about priests, else misfortune will come your way’ – is a dictum that holds sway in traditional Goan society. But in modern times there are many who are candid in their views.

“I’m glad that this pope is finally calling it quits! I pray that the next leader would be tolerant and open to engaging with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) voices within the Church. At this moment I can only hope for a better and inclusive leadership within the Catholic church,” said Andy Silveira, a professor of English literature.

The resignation of the pope has given the Church in Goa a reason for introspection, and Fr Rocha, the Jesuit Provincial in Goa, says the state is not immune to “the worldwide crisis of faith.”

“There are some even willing to give up religion and commit themselves wholly to their profession,” says Fr Rocha, adding that issues such as ‘sheep stealing’ – or people abandoning the flock for other faiths – were plaguing the Goa Church more than other places.

The question of the hour is, what does the Church in Goa and its faithful expect from the pope?

 “There are people who look for a more expressive interpretation of the Gospel… in some ways more emotional … They find it difficult to experience God and that is why they go into the more emotional way of Pentecostal (Church) and things like that,” Fr Rocha said.

Fr Rocha did not offer an opinion on the issues of contraception, marriage of priests or ending the male monopoly on the priesthood. He did, however, acknowledge that none of these things can be ignored. “These are burning issues … The church will have to take them into account,” Fr Rocha said.

On abortion though, Fr Rocha, said the right of the unborn is unassailable.

“The Church has a clear understanding that flows from the Gospel by human right, of the unassailable right of the child in the womb,” Rocha said, reflecting the near certainty that no successor to Pope Benedict XVI would revisit the issue.

It’s not exactly fair to characterize Goa’s Church as ultra-conservative, however. For even if there are few calls for change in traditional doctrine, the Church in Goa has long been a leader in pushing for respect for the environment and the rights of the downtrodden. There is strong sympathy here for liberation theology, the Latin America-derived strain of Catholic thought championing social justice.

“We’re in some ways deeply touched by liberation theology and our religious and social duties towards the earth,” Fr Rocha said.

So as the two cardinals of Goan origin enter the papal conclave to choose Pope Benedict’s successor along with three other Indian cardinals, their outlook and predispositions cannot be easily qualified into “liberal” or “conservative” camps.

This time around, there’s little expectation that the cardinals will choose an Indian pope. However, the five Indian cardinals – part of the 120 cardinals who will choose the next pope – are sure to wield significant influence. And they will be among those who will ultimately decide the outcome of the current debate on whether the next pope will come from the developed or the developing world.

When Cardinal Dias was being considered as papal material eight years ago, Time magazine cited his ‘strong diplomatic experience’ and opined that his election “would represent a bold choice from the developing world”.

Yet the presence of Asians, Africans and Latin Americans in the papal conclave does not pre-ordain the election of a new pope.

Miguel Braganza, a botanist and vocal Catholic in Goa, wonders aloud whether Asians “have a colonial mindset that makes them choose a European for a boss.” He adds on a more serious note: “The nationality of the Pope should not be an issue because the word ‘Catholic’ means ‘Universal’. The rationality of the Pope matters more.”

Whatever the outcome, there is a longing in Goa to return the time when the Vatican projected a more inspirational rather than doctrinal image. The time of John Paul II.

Fr Rocha’s says this: “Pope Benedict XVI is a very warm person, but also a German who‘s not willing to go beyond his limits. So he may not be as effusive as John Paul II, who was an actor who knew how to engage people in an effusive way. John Paul’s gestures were more evocative of affection.”

It seems that in the end, what Goans want is a loving father.